A tribute to forgotten history

(Published in The New Indian Express, October 28 2018)

By Usha Raman

The fort of Golconda lies on the western fringes of a city that has long outgrown its history—as cities tend to do. The popular histories purveyed by tourist guides and travelogues, even when combined with the fading lettering on signboards, give us at best a grainy picture of its past. ‘Golla-konda’, one story goes, known as ‘shepherd’s hill’, was once a mud fort, an outpost of the Kakatiya kingdom of Warangal. That was before it gained legendary prominence as a bustling centre of commerce and culture under the Qutb Shahis, a dynasty of seven kings who reigned from 1518 to 1687.

But the Qutb Shahis, who descended from a lesser royal line of the Iraqi court, belonging to what came to be known as the House of Sheep, were only one of several kingdoms in the large expanse of the Deccan, a region eyed greedily but never entirely subdued by Delhi. In this plateau, bounded on the north by the Vindhyas and bordering the kingdom of Vijayanagara on the south, were five warring states—Ahmednagar, Berar, Bidar, Bijapur and Golconda. In the three-and-a-half centuries between the march of Alauddin Khilji to Devanagiri and the rise of the Mughal empire in Delhi, this group of Sultans, along with the Rayas of Vijayanagara, shaped life in the Deccan.

“To some it was a kingdom of tantalising treasures and marvelous opportunity; to others, however, the Deccan became also something more sinister: the undoing of mighty kings, a graveyard of glorious empires.” Manu S Pillai, in the introduction to his sweeping, detailed history of this region, lays out the scope of his ‘modest’ ambitions, to pay homage to the Deccan because “the Deccan was witness to the making of India, and the tribute India must pay is to remember and recall”.

Manu’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji is his tribute, offered in seven incredibly detailed chapters, each taking the reader on a heady ride through the rise and fall of these sultanates. The pace of storytelling is breathless, with war and intrigue and betrayal and appeasement following each other at breakneck pace, leaving one wondering if these people ever had a peaceful night’s sleep. Manu begins his story in the aftermath of the fall of the three main kingdoms of the region—the Hoysalas, Yadavas and the Kakatiyas—and the rechristening of Devagiri as Daulatabad, and another rebellion from which emerged “a new king, chosen almost by lottery, who launched with him a sparkling new dynasty”. This was a young commander named Hasan Gangu, who proclaimed himself Abul Muzaffar Alaudin Bahman Shah, the first ruler of the Bahmani Sultanate, which for most of the 1400s, had dominion over a large territory, including Bijapur, Bidar and Golconda.

The narrative goes beyond the names-places-dates of the complex battles for power in each of the five sultanates, to also paint a picture of the cultural and social fabric woven across the Deccan in this period. We get a glimpse of the persona of Ibrahim Adil Shah II of Bijapur, known as ‘Saraswati’s son’, a “man Emperor Akbar would have been delighted to meet”, and a brief introduction to his regent, Chand Bibi, who Manu describes as “among the staunchest warriors for the independence of the Deccan”. And we learn how Vijayanagara finally falls to the combined forces of these sultanates.

One of the most fascinating stories in the book is that of Malik Amber, the Ethiopian slave who rose to become a kingmaker and a decisive force in Bijapur’s struggle for supremacy in the region.

This is certainly not the first history of the Deccan—in fact, he draws on a wide range of secondary sources for a rich trove of anecdotes and analysis—but he tells it engagingly and imaginatively, giving us a sense of the syncretic culture of the period, often peppering the pages with unexpected humour. It fills out, to a large extent, our understanding of the people whose ghosts roam in the many monuments that dot the region, from the whispering walls of Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur to the Madrasa in Bidar to the echoing archways of Golconda.


Author Manu S Pillai tells Medha Dutta that his book Rebel Sultans is an effort to resurrect a forgotten chapter in history.

When we think of the Deccan, all we can think of is Shivaji. Are we ill-informed?

Shivaji deserves his place in history. But Shivaji has also become so political since the 19th century that he has become the only figure in the Deccan. So, a massive area and its splendid history get condensed into one character, one event, and one period. You barely get a glimpse of others. But growing up there was occasionally a tantalising mention of some other rulers—Adil Shah, Nizam Shah—but they were always footnotes in the story of Shivaji. As with my first book, the effort was to resurrect a forgotten chapter in history. Better historians than me have done great books on Shivaji. But I wanted to see why Shivaji appeared at that specific time—what led to Shivaji. I wanted to revisit the era like before Shivaji and understand what allowed a man like him to emerge at this juncture.

How intensive was the research?

Altogether this project took two years. There was a lot academic work that was involved. Also, different texts were in different languages and I had to often rely on translations. I decided in October 2016 that I would make a book out of this. I was at the Golconda tombs and I realised that these beautiful structures were living proof of the splendours of the Deccan. Someone needed to resurrect it in public imagination.

You authored The Ivory Throne at age 25, a critically acclaimed 700-page history of Kerala. What attracts you to history and any plans on writing fiction? 

I do intend to do fiction but I will not till I am convinced that I have enough life experience. It’s very easy to do a bad novel, and that will haunt you for life. It will hang over your head and never go away. So I have decided that I will not do a novel before 2024. Hopefully by then I will have enough self-awareness and knowledge of the world and the wisdom to come up with an original work. I don’t want to do a hackneyed, repetitive, run-of-the-mill novel.

I was always interested in history. By the time I was 19, I started work on my first book. I was interested also in the people who made history. I was interested in the fact that we often think of historical figures as different from us and what I realised was that the context is different, their world is different, but basic human impulses, feelings are the same. And I found that fascinating.

Narrative history is suddenly back in fashion.

I think William Dalrymple gets the credit for it. He is the one who introduced us to history written in an attractive fashion. And, India has such a wealth of history that there is an appetite for it. But we need more voices, especially women’s voices, to come in.

If you had to choose your favourite character in history and why?

Well, there are many. But it would be a woman, because female characters do not get the attention they deserve. It is true that they also appear less frequently in the records and the past is dominated by men, but we have to seek out the women and tell their stories.

What’s next?

I’m working on something connected to the colonial era in the 19th century. I hope to finish it by 2020.